“Just back from London and very happy to have a slate of really exciting projects,” Katja von Garnier has clearly gone tri-coastal! Having lived and worked for ten years in the US, she returned to Germany to become a major force in establishing “the OSTWIND brand” and is “now looking to film again in English as well as German.” As opening statements of intent go, this is a good one!
Enjoying being back in an environment she describes as “cosier, a bit more personal”, von Garnier’s Stateside expertise when it comes to “understanding about script, working on nuances in dialogue” is obvious just in general conversation. She doesn’t just speak English, she ‘gets’ the language.
The classic adage: never work with children or animals and here is a woman who has done both, twice, voluntarily! OSTWIND (international title: WINDSTORM), the girl-and-a-horse franchise has proven a German box office thoroughbred, as well as winning, among others, the German Film Award for Best Children’s and Youth Film and von Garnier the Bavarian Film Award. “They were dream projects,” von Garnier says. A girl herself, “I love horses! I have two and brought to the project all the experience and longings I had, still have, especially the connection between horses and humans: it was very personal for me.”
As befits a sequel, the second OSTWIND film is “quite a bigger film with big set pieces, such as racing an aircraft, or when the horse comes to town. We have dressage without a bridle, a galloping herd, two horses playing in a forest and so on.” Getting Lassie to sit up, roll over and play dead this wasn’t, so how did it come together? “Precise planning,” von Garnier explains. “We all sat down and asked ourselves ‘What would be fun?’ Then the writers, Lea Schmidbauer and Kristina Magdalena Hehn, had to make dramatic sense of it, which takes real skill, and then we shot it! It was all a director’s dream!” That easy? Well... Here she pays effusive tribute to SamFilm and producers Ewa Karlström, “who produced my first film, MAKING UP, which also won the Student Academy Award® in 1994, and developed and brought me the OSTWIND script,” and Andreas Ulmke-Smeaton. “It’s a continuing partnership,” she adds.
In fact, the OSTWIND franchise was von Garnier’s “first attempt at traditional ‘youth’ films. In Germany, the successful ones are based on pre-existing material, whereas we started from original scripts. The books came afterwards and they have been very successful too. Creating a strong brand like this, it’s great!” Would she like to do more? Stupid question! “I’d love to! And I’m currently thinking over my next steps,” she explains. “As a director, when I do something I’m in total tunnel vision; the other ideas sit there till the film is done, then I return to them. I want to be in the position to push them forward while working on another film. Ideally, I’d like a first look situation or development financing so I can realize a slate of projects in various stages.” Producers, the queue forms on the right!
“With regard to subjects and as evidenced by her own filmography (e.g. the Golden Globe nominated IRON JAWED ANGELS, which stars Hilary Swank and Anjelica Huston, who won a Golden Globe for her performance, and BANDITS), and, indeed, personally, von Garnier is “always searching for strong, modern, female characters. I have a weak spot for rebels, I’m always looking for something potentially exhilarating. I want to feel things, so there has to be emotional depth. If it is funny at the same time, even better! I also need soulful things we haven’t seen so often before. I love romance, but it’s rare.”
Referencing one of her previous films, BANDITS, von Garnier would “definitely do another music film” wanting “again, to show the human spirit. I’m really big on one person being able to initiate change, like we portrayed in the suffragist film IRON JAWED ANGELS, with its young, radical women.”
“I believe films can be very powerful and have impact,” she continues. “They are potentially an opportunity to create positive visions of the future. I’m not big on playing on fears or disaster movies... although, of course, they can be entertaining too.”
With regard to her working methods, von Garnier is an actor’s director: “I love developing for specific actors,” she says. “BANDITS was created especially for the cast, as people and friends. If the script touches me, I ask what I can bring, what my vision is, and it starts with a feeling: how do I want the film to feel? Then I find music to fit and design the images to that. Parallel, I work with the writer to co-create scenes that match the feeling.”
Watching von Garnier’s films, one sees her love of dynamism and movement: “I’m always searching for organic but interesting movement, which all originates from the feeling, the purpose of the scene, it’s dramatic content. Hence the importance of everyone working together before shooting. Some action sequences have to be storyboarded, of course, but my DP, Torsten Breuer, who has shot everything I’ve done in Germany, has exactly the same visual taste for storytelling. He’s incredible and I’ve known him since film school.”
“With OSTWIND 2, it was essential for “the scenes, especially in the town, to be preimagined and the shots decided in advance,” von Garnier continues, “because horses don’t always take direction. The trainer needs to know exactly because a horse never asks ‘What’s my motivation’!” Not even a sugar lump? Not always, no, and they have a tendency to want to do their own thing too! “It’s a challenge but also a total pleasure, and you need a strong strategy, especially if the horse decides to improvise! We had to be spontaneous and because it was the same crew as for the first OSTWIND everybody knew how plans could change instantly.”
At the same time, von Garnier is not afraid of suddenly changing circumstances: “It rained, the sun came out, the light was amazing, so we got the horse to run through a field and it’s now the centerpiece of the film. You have to be ready to seize and adapt to moments.”
What applies to horses also goes for kids: “You have to know very specifically what you are shooting when handling children as well; be inventive, create and also find a way to shoot the scene even when the actor is not there. You do a lot of advance editing in your head. I feel what is needed and then create it in the editing. I love non-linear storytelling and especially two levels being intercut and interwoven at the same time.”
Von Garnier draws inspiration from, amongst others, Nicolas Roeg and Milos Forman (“HAIR is one of my all-time favorite movies”) with, again, “music being very important as an inspirational element. It helps me come up with the images. I had an exceptional collaboration with Annette Fox on OSTWIND; she totally gets it! She did with the music what we did with the film and added a whole new dimension. OSTWIND is the connection between the girl and the horse, and the nature of making the film is all about synergy, both on and off set.” Always ready to praise others, she cites here “Kensy Disley, our horse trainer, a very special person.”
A mother of two, von Garnier also owns two horses, one of which, Pilgrim “has a guest appearance in OSTWIND 2! The other, Traeh, in the first film. Her name is heart, backwards, and whenever I have time I go to see them.”
Von Garnier’s partner, Markus Goller, is himself a director. So does that mean they are always directing each other? On the contrary, she says, “it’s wonderful because we know what the other is going through. We can help one another, talk things through, because we are on the same wavelength, wanting the best for each other.” That will be the synergy and connection again, then.